Yom Kippur Day Sept 25, 2023
10 Tishrei, 5784
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Confronting Death and Affirming Life
Only once in my career have, I scrapped my sermon just before the High Holidays. That occurred the week of 9/11 in 2001 when I knew I needed to give a very different sermon than the one I had written. Today I am doing it again as I had planned to speak about Israel, and the troubling things happening there.
Two weeks ago, we were treated to an outstanding sermon on Israel given by our member Heidi Schneider, who served for the last 5 years as the national President of our Movement’s Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel. We are grateful to Heidi and her husband Joel for their tremendous support of that work. We will send out that sermon. It urges us to advocate for our values and to affirm Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state, in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. We need to do so lest non-Orthodox Jewish Movements be further delegitimatized, and the ruling coalition continue to run roughshod over the rights of minorities, undermining democracy by disempowering Israel’s Supreme Court.
I have decided not to deliver a sermon on that theme, as important as it is, and to instead focus on something very personal to me and to our congregation, the many losses we have sustained the last 6 or 7 weeks of people who have been very dear to us and who have blessed our congregation in so many ways. One might think that doing funerals would get easier with years of experience, but in some ways, they have gotten harder, as I am called to bury people I have known for decades, who have been so important to our Adath Jeshurun and to me.
Last night at Kol Nidre, Rabbi Weininger gave a beautiful sermon based on the verse from Song of Songs (5:5) asking us to reflect on, “Who is your invisible village, knocking on the door to your heart?” Who has passed, yet we carry them with us into Yom Kippur and beyond? As we prepare for the Yizkor service, I want to respond to his compelling question by reflecting on this string of losses we have experienced here at Adath.
I begin with the sudden and unexpected death of Dr Jack Levitt in mid-August. We had just gathered on a Shabbat morning in June to mark Jack’s 90th birthday and his recent retirement, after an outstanding career as a physician practicing for 53 years at the Blaisdale Clinic of Park Nicollet. Many people here knew him as the husband of Rachel Levitt, may she be well, who has long been a beloved teacher of Hebrew and Jewish studies in Saint Paul and at Adath. I discovered recently that years ago Rachel was the principal of our religious school at Adath and for years she was beloved for teaching Hebrew to our Intro to Judaism Class. While Jack often followed Rachel’s lead in engaging in the synagogue, he also stood out here for the incredible sukkah he built each year for the last 52 years. It was cleverly fashioned in the unique circular shape of an Asian yurt that was both distinctive and kosher. Being welcomed to the Levitt sukkah and seeing the enthusiasm he still had for that effort was has long been a highlight of the holiday season.
A few days later in mid-August, shortly after Jack Levitt’s death, I learned that our long-time beloved member, Don Masler, was near the end of his life. You may remember Don from the many years he served like a Hazzan Sheni, as Cantor Kula often relied on him to lead us in prayer on Shabbat and holidays. He was a phenomenal Torah reader and knew every kind of nusach, the varied chants for prayer. Don had a sweet voice and a superb command of Hebrew and Jewish sources. While he was still working as a physician at the Minneapolis Veterans hospital, he would come regularly to minyan and on Shabbat. He often led Shabbat afternoon at Minha followed by seudah sheleeshet, the third meal, where he led zmirot Shabbat songs. He was a lifelong learner and teacher of both teenagers in our Shabbat Morning Program, and of adults, making time to study with people individually and in groups. He introduced so many people to Jewish learning with his kind and gentle manner. It is unfortunate that Don, who was a gay man, did not feel he could come out at Adath until late in his life. I appreciate that for decades he had a wonderful life partner in Jim Kelly and that when Jim died, we could offer support and comfort at Adath to Don. as he had offered to so many here. At his funeral, Rabbi Sharon Stiefel and I agreed that it was fitting to speak of Don as a lamed vavnik, one of the 36 hidden, righteous people who are said to sustain the world. Don truly was one of the most saintly people I have ever known.
Last night, Rabbi Weininger in his sermon remembered another beloved congregant who died at the beginning of September, Carolyn Abramson. Carolyn’s membership at Adath goes back to when she was 10 years old and her family moved into Linden Hills. In a memoir, Carolyn described her teen years actively involved in our USY youth group chapter, that was launched when she was in 11th grade, as the Twin Cities provided the model for the Conservative Movement’s national youth program. She learned how to lead services, plan and organize study sessions, and participated in activities with kids from across the Twin Cities Conservative synagogues, and elsewhere in the region.
It was in USY that she formed close bonds with her dear friend Norman Pink, who we also lost this past year. Norman, whose family provided multi-generational leadership to our congregation, served twice with great menschleikeit as President of Adath, both times of critical transitions for our congregation.
Carolyn, too, felt a lifelong allegiance to our congregation. She married her beloved Burton who grew up at Adath and he sang in our choir for years. They raised their four children here. Carolyn experienced some very difficult loses, but she was a person who brought light into every space she entered, and she was an incredibly wise mentor to so many people in our congregation, including to my wife Cindy and to me. You may recall hearing Carolyn thanked at the end of our Neilah service that concludes Yom Kippur as she and Bruce Nemer, of blessed memory, would sponsor our congregational breakfast with Bobby Nemer and Ella Mogilevsky, may they remain well.
This past week has been especially tough. You may have heard me announce the passing, on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, of Max Elkin. Max had not been around the congregation since the death of his wife Dinah in 2007. He found it too hard to be here without his beloved wife and partner. But when I arrived, and for decades, Max and Dinah were at the very center of the life of our Adath Jeshurun Congregation. They were regulars on Shabbat and at our daily minyan. One could hear Max’s distinctive voice singing out in Adath’s Choir. For years, Max and Dinah chaired our Chevra Kavod HaMet, Adath’s Burial Society and attended to every detail when the Chevra was called upon for a funeral. He also served for a time as the supervisor of the Adath Chesed Shel Emet and the Minneapolis Jewish Cemeteries.
For years before I arrived, the Elkins ran our Shabbat afternoon and evening services and the meal served between those services known in Yiddish as shalushshudes the third meal. I can still hear Max’s voice guiding people through the Saturday evening ritual from services through the meal, Jewish learning and song. In a practice established by Cantor Kula, Bnai Mitzvah would start the week of their celebration by reading Torah publicly for the first time at our Shabbat afternoon service. Max was always so affirming and encouraging of each of the kids to help build their confidence. A touching memory of those evenings was when Dinah would assist in closing the ark as Max returned the Sefer Torah and Dinah would give him a little kiss on the cheek, a tender moment reflecting their life and love in 57 years of marriage.
And then this past week ended with the death of Dora Zaidenweber.
Dora, and her beloved husband Jules z’l, joined Adath after they arrived in Minneapolis having survived the hell of the Shoah. They were active members of our shul and Shabbat regulars. Dora supported the work of our Chevra Kavod HaMet, sewing the tachrichim, the special shrouds that we use for dressing the met, the deceased for burial. The Zaidenwebers were well known for the many audiences around the state they addressed to raise awareness of the Shoah and to warn of the danger of unleashed hatred.
Dora started home hospice last year, but that did not stop her from insisting on attending a legislative hearing in March, at the State Capitol in Saint Paul, to urge legislators to adopt a bill mandating Holocaust and genocide education in MN High Schools. The bill was championed by Rep. Frank Hornstein and the JCRC. You can read the print and TV news coverage of her testimony that moved even reluctant legislators to get that bill passed. At the JCRC Benefit this year, Gov. Walz publicly acknowledged Dora for the crucial role she played.
I recount the lives of these folks, who have been so dear to our congregation and important in my life, in response to Rabbi Weininger’s question, “Who is your invisible village, knocking on the door to your heart?” These, and so many others, are the people I carry with me and whose presence I feel in our sanctuary, whether I knew them as members when we were on Dupont Ave, or after we moved here. They are all very much in the room. Two weeks ago, we read Parashat Nitzavim in which Moshe reminds the people of Israel that the covenant, the brit, they are party to is, “both with those who are standing here with us this day before our God Adonai and with those who are not with us here this day.
כִּי֩ אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֶשְׁנ֜וֹ פֹּ֗ה עִמָּ֙נוּ֙ עֹמֵ֣ד הַיּ֔וֹם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְאֵ֨ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵינֶ֛נּוּ פֹּ֖ה עִמָּ֥נוּ הַיּֽוֹם׃
I very much feel at that crossroad captured by this verse, placing us between those are with us this day and those who are gone, and alluding as well to those who are yet to be here. Our synagogue brings us together in affirming that brit covenant. It is exceedingly difficult to let go of those who have been so dear to us, and who have for so many years defined this place. But I offer this last High Holiday sermon at Adath with trust and confidence for the future, knowing that others have and will step up to enable us to live out that covenantal responsibility and carry our congregation forward. It will not the same, but a new generation will make the Adath their own, and thereby live out their commitment to the covenant.
Years ago, I remember looking at the older folks who made up our daily minyan and wondering what would become of our minyan when those older folks were gone. I did not factor in that there would be new older folks who had the time and willingness to commit to sustaining the vitality of our daily minyan. It is not a small mater to replace people as leaders of our services when veteran leaders with significant skills have aged out, or died, but I know that Hazzan Dulkin is eager to help people develop those skills and to form a new crop of leaders. Making use of zoom technology since the pandemic, which was at one time unthinkable, means that we never need to be without a minyan for prayer. Still, it is a richer, more personal experience when we gather for daily minyan in person and I look forward to our eventually rebuilding our presence in person, complemented by zoom.
There is no area of the life of our congregation where over time we will not need to identify new leaders to carry the work forward. I want to make a point of lifting up the example of our Chevra Kavod HaMet. Many of those I mentioned today were leaders of that incredible effort, going back to when it was launched by Rabbi Godman with congregants in 1976. Adath received national attention. ABC nationally made a documentary about that eoffrt that is still used to instruct people in the mitzvah of Chevra Kaddisha. We are still looked to as leaders nationally in this work. When I became senior rabbi in 1996, it was clear that our Chevra was needing attention. I committed to renewing it and we recruited some 90 volunteers who accepted the responsibility for keeping it going. The Chevra again needs to be revitalized. I greatly appreciate that Rabbi Weininger is committed to that effort. It is one of the most powerful spiritual experiences imaginable, and I encourage our people to step forward to take on roles in sustaining it.
I want to end by picking up on one other thread of Rabbi Weininger’s message last night when he asked that we “use this Yom Kippur to locate loss in order to locate life.” In the eulogy I delivered for Max Elkin last week, I noted how in many ways he and Dinah were involved in aspects of the shul that supported people in dealing with death, in making possible a minyan for kaddish, and other sacred purposes, in leading our Chevra Kavod HaMet for decades, in directly caring for the dead and treating the body with the utmost respect, and in the caring for our Jewish communal cemeteries. In all these ways, Max and Dinah were guides to our congregation in dealing with the end of life, and that theme ran through many of the stories of the people I recalled today. They all understood that death was not something to be avoided or denied. There was no better way to face the inevitability of death and to counter that reality than to engage it directly and having done so to embrace living fully.
This explains why Judaism wisely has us confront the inevitability of death in so many ways- ending each daily service with the Mourner’s Kaddish, incorporating the Yizkor prayers into many of our holidays as we will in a few moments, doing Kever Avot- visits to the cemetery at the time of these holidays, returning each year on the yahrzeit do say Kaddish and to dedicate ourselves to the values of those whom we remember. The regular confrontation with death by Judaism is not borne out of it being a morbid religion, but rather it comes from the wisdom that has us confront death in order to embrace life.
As we begin our Yizkor service, let us honor those who have been important to us and shaped us into the people and community that we have become. As we forthrightly confront the reality of death, let us end this Yom Kippur holiday determined to live our lives with meaning and purpose, and with stronger ties to the covenant, which is our people’s heritage.
Adath clergy, staff, and congregants share